I’ve been in Bali just over a month now and last week I rented my own motorbike and started driving in ‘Bali Traffic’… oh yes, the much anticipated, much maligned ‘Bali Traffic’. I’m still alive – I consider this a significant achievement. I know for those who have been living here for years and for those of you raised in ‘Bali Traffic’ it’s no big deal at all but for me, who learnt to drive in a country where licences and road-rules are paramount, driving in Bali is a complete reversal of so many things I thought I knew. As I’ve been riding along, I’ve been observing with the keen interest only someone new to a situation can have and, somewhere along the way, realised there are a few little life lessons we can extrapolate from ‘Bali Traffic’ if we’re willing to see the metaphors…
1) Don’t worry about what’s behind you.
(Apart from the occasional big truck or bus.)
When I learnt to drive in Australia, my driving instructor was very particular about me always being aware of what was in my mirrors – what was behind me. As I progressed in my driving adventures to driving vans full of music equipment and other interesting things I was always insisting that I had to be able to see behind me. Driving a friend’s van in which there were no side windows and limited visibility out the back window I actually stopped and refused to drive any further. I was very dependent on my mirrors. I liked them, I liked knowing what was behind me. But driving in Bali is showing me that what’s behind you isn’t generally that important. The things ‘behind’ you in life are generally irrelevant in your key task of focussing on where you’re going, where you are right now and what’s ahead of you. Your past has no sway on your present unless you let it and you are much better off (and much safer) focusing your attention on what is immediately beside you and in front of you.
2) Hold your space. (And let other people know you’re there.)
On all the roads of Bali you will find all manner of vehicles and pedestrians. You will see motorbikes, cars, trucks and buses, people on bicycles, people on foot and various people pushing their food-carts. There are even horse-drawn carriages. And you won’t just find all of these things in the quiet little side streets, you’ll find them on the Bypass, the main highway of Bali and, for the most part, (Horses excepted) they all seem pretty as ease with being there. You see, they have mastered the art of holding their space. Whenever they are on the road, that is their part of the road and they have a right to be there. You can be wherever else you like but this, this little section, this little path is their space. It doesn’t matter if they are on a rusty old bicycle and you are in a trumped up, horrendously conspicuous tourist bus – they will hold their space. An important part of being able to hold space is the open, unabashed willingness to let people know you’re there. The beeping of horns and the ringing of bells is a simple, clear message – I’m here. Hold your space in life no matter how small or slow you feel – your path and your being there is completely valid. And, for God’s sake, let people know you’re there – don’t expect people to know you’re there or that you want attention unless you let them know – Don’t be afraid to make noise.
3) Be very aware of everyone else’s paths (But don’t necessarily follow them.)
Yes, their path may mean that they are driving on completely the wrong side of the road and your brain is yelling ‘What the hell are you doing?!’ Yes, their path may mean random, illogical stops directly in front of you. Stay calm and let them do their thing. Where anyone is going and how they’re getting there is none of your business. Keep focussed on where you’re going.
4) Everyone can ride.
There is a part of my inner pride that stings a little whenever I see 10year old school girls riding their motorbikes more confidently than me. I watch with a mixture of fear (for their safety) and fascination as 6 year old boys happily ride their bicycles along main roads. I ‘Tsk, tsk.’ at young hotheads who tear up the bypass stupidly faster than they need to be going. I watch old Grandfathers who look like they can barely keep themselves vertical trundle along on their ancient wheeled machines, seemingly oblivious to the chaos around them. In a country in which the majority of the population has never had a driving lesson and licences can be bought, the possibility that you can’t ride is just bizarre. Kids drive here. I bet you’ve never seen a kid zooming up the interstate in any Western country! Bali drivers remind us that we can all drive, we can all participate in life, no matter the state or speed of our particular mode of travel. Just the simple act of living and practicing qualifies you for this game.
5) A helmet is a good idea.
Sometimes life knocks us around a little. Sometimes it doesn’t serve us to be completely exposed to the elements or to other people and their criticisms and judgements. Sometimes a little protection, a little selective defence will save us a world of hurt and injury. Choose the times and ways you protect yourself mindfully.
6) When in doubt, slow down.
It’s fairly simple really. When in doubt, slow down.
7) There are some things you just can’t do by yourself.
If you’ve been in Bali more than a day you would have by now seen a rather amusing sight… two people on one motorbike carrying a large, unwieldy object. Classic examples include bicycles, filing cabinets and enough shopping to fill a small trailer. If the driver didn’t have their second person there as a helper, these tasks would be impossible. Sometimes there’s just no way around it – you just need a friend. Embrace it and it becomes an adventure, resist and you’re going to have a fair bit of trouble getting anything home (or signalling right when your indicators are broken!).
8) Bigger isn’t always better.
It’s common knowledge in Bali that motorbikes get you there quicker. Cars and buses are big and ungainly and quite often a pain in the butt to negotiate around tight corners and into small places. With a motorbike you have none of these problems and can quite happily and easily zip up the side of a traffic jam and the big cars sitting idling with no choice but to wait it out. Yes, I know big things have their perks but, in general, smaller is easier to manuovere and quicker in the long run. Choose your vehicle to match your terrain. If the situation calls for it, be prepared to keep your life small, simple and easily manoeuvrable.
9) It’s not as crazy as it seems.
Even though it seems chaotic and crazy from the outside, just below the surface there’s an order and a flow and a common understanding amongst drivers. Bali traffic manages to work because there is a general understanding of compromise, of graciously giving way. I’m yet to see any ‘Road Rage’ and it’s heartening because it everyone seems to realise that we’re all stuck in the same traffic jam and getting angry about it isn’t going to help. Perhaps this in the biggest lesson Bali traffic can offer us – Relax, we’re all in this together… and there is an order and a flow to life that is not always immediately obvious, only over time can we appreciate it.